Saba Mahmood

Saba Mahmood (February 3, 1962 – March 10, 2018)[1][2] was professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.[3] At Berkeley, she was also affiliated with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Institute for South Asia Studies, and the Program in Critical Theory. Her scholarly work straddled debates in anthropology and political theory, with a focus on Muslim majority societies of the Middle East and South Asia. Mahmood made major theoretical contributions to rethinking the relationship between ethics and politics, religion and secularism, freedom and submission, and reason and embodiment. Influenced by the work of Talal Asad, she wrote on issues of gender, religious politics, secularism, and Muslim and non-Muslim relations in the Middle East.

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Mahmood was born in Quetta, Pakistan, where her father was a policeman.[4] In 1981, she moved to Seattle to study at the University of Washington.[4] She received her PhD in anthropology from Stanford University in 1998.[5] She also held master's degrees in Political Science, Architecture, and Urban Planning. She married Charles Hirschkind, an anthropology professor at UC Berkeley, in 2003.[4] Prior to joining Berkeley in 2004, she taught at the University of Chicago.[3]

Mahmood held visiting appointments at the American Academy in Berlin, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and Leiden University. She taught at the School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell University, the Venice School of Human Rights, and Institute of Global Law and Policy. She was a co-convener of the Summer Seminar in Experimental Critical Theory at the University of California Humanities Research Institute, Irvine. Mahmood served on the editorial boards of Representations,[6] Anthropology Today, L'Homme, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and Journal of the American Academy of Religion.[7]

Mahmood was the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including an honorary doctorate from Uppsala University,[8] the Carnegie Corporation's scholar of Islam award,[9] the Frederick Burkhardt fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, and grants from the Henry Luce Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and Harvard Academy of International and Area Studies. Her book Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject received the 2005 Victoria Schuck Award from the American Political Science Association and was an honorable mention for the 2005 Albert Hourani Book Award from the Middle East Studies Association.[10] Her book Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report received the 2016 Clifford Geertz Prize in the Anthropology of Religion from the Society for the Anthropology of Religion.[11] Her work has been translated into Arabic, French, Persian, Portuguese, Spanish, Turkish, and Polish.[3]

Overview of work

Mahmood's work has carried profound implications for the philosophical and empirical study of sovereignty, subjectivity and feminist agency, and has led many scholars to reconsider dominant approaches to the law and the modern state, particularly with respect to how religious subjects and groups are governed and defined.[12] Crossing disciplinary boundaries in the humanities and social sciences, her work has shaped theoretical and ethnographic inquiry into religion and freedom in modernity, as well as the legacies of colonialism, capitalism, and secularism in contemporary conflicts in the Middle East.[13]

Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (2005)

In Politics of Piety, Saba Mahmood offers an ethnography of the women's piety movement in Cairo, Egypt, which is part of a larger Egyptian movement of Islamic political revival and reform. Drawing on this ethnography, the book interrogates the liberal and secular epistemologies that inform dominant understandings of modern Islamic politics, freedom, and agency. The book's key theoretical interventions include examining Aristotelian discourses on ethics as they are taken up in both the Islamic tradition and continental thought; critically engaging anthropological theory on cultural and embodied practice, including the work of Marcel Mauss, Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault; and intervening in feminist theory on agency, gender and embodiment, and particularly through the work of Judith Butler. In these ways, Mahmood interrogates the relationship between bodily practices and bodily form, on the one hand, and ethical and political imaginaries, on the other, while at the same time questioning the presumed separation of the domains of ethics and politics.[14]

The second edition of Politics of Piety was published in 2011. In the Preface, Mahmood addressed the book's critics who had argued her engagement with the women's piety movement was "an abandonment of feminism’s emancipatory mandate." She wrote that her critics "ignore the fact that I was not interested in delivering judgments on what counts as a feminist versus an anti-feminist practice." She argued that an analysis that leads with a moral evaluation of the women's movement does not yield a better understanding of it. “My task as a scholar," she wrote, "is not simply to denounce, but to try to understand what motivates people to be involved in such movements.”[15]

Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (2015)

In this book, Mahmood challenges liberal conceptions of secularism as religion's opposite as well as celebratory views of secularism as the solution to religious discrimination. Drawing on the intertwined history of secularism in the Middle East and Europe, and extensive fieldwork on the experiences of Copts and Bahais in Egypt, Mahmood explores the conceptual, discursive and lived paradoxes of political secularism. Mahmood concludes that "political secularism is the modern state's sovereign power to reorganize substantive features of religious life, stipulating what religion is or ought to be, assigning its proper content, and disseminating concomitant subjectivities, ethical frameworks, and quotidian practices."[16]


Mahmood's name appeared in the WikiLeaks documents, in the material obtained from the Turkish President (then Prime Minister) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's son-in-law Berat Albayrak. As a professor, Saba Mahmood worked with Erdoğan's daughter Esra Albayrak, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley. In her e-mails dated December 2013 and March 2014—a period when the political environment in Turkey became particularly oppressive, with human rights violations targeting the government's critics across the political spectrum in the aftermath of the Gezi Park protests—Mahmood noted her awareness of "how hard [that] past year [had] been for [Esra Albayrak], [her] family, and for Turkey in general," expressing her solidarity with Albayrak and "her struggle." The emails were sent in the midst of the 2013 corruption scandal in Turkey.[17] Wikileaks documents and the accounts of some prominent Turkish politicians such as Eren Erdem suggest that Berat Albayrak was allegedly a partner in Oil production and smuggling in ISIL during the time Mahmood was advising Esra Albayrak.[18][19][20]


Mahmood died from pancreatic cancer on March 10, 2018.[21] On her behalf, the Department of Anthropology of the University of California said: "Saba Mahmood was a brilliant scholar, cherished colleague, and dedicated teacher and graduate mentor. Along with her ceaseless political passions and trenchant analyses, she keened to the beauty of the wilderness, the poetry of Ghalib, the delights of cooking and sharing excellent food. She cultivated with joyous attention her relationships with family and friends. She mentored her students with remarkable care and intensity, demanding their best work, listening, responding with a sharp generosity, coming alive in thought, and soliciting others to do the same. In her final months, she affirmed the values of thought and love, leaving now a vibrant legacy that will persist and flourish among all whose lives were touched by her life and work. She is survived by her husband, Charles Hirschkind, her son, Nameer Hirschkind."[5]



  • Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.
  • Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech. With Talal Asad, Wendy Brown and Judith Butler. Fordham University Press, 2013. (First edition published by the University of California Press, 2009).
  • The Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012 (First edition: 2005).

Edited books and journals

  • Politics of Religious Freedom. (Co-edited with Winifred Sullivan, Elizabeth Hurd, and Peter Danchin). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.
  • "Religious Liberty and Secular Politics", The South Atlantic Quarterly (special issue, with Peter Danchin), 113(1), 2014.
  • "Contested Polities: Religious Disciplines and Structures of Modernity", Stanford Humanities Review (special issue, with Nancy Reynolds) 5:1, 1995.

Chapters in books

  • "Introduction" (with W. Sullivan, E. Hurd, and P. Danchin), Politics of Religious Freedom, Sullivan, Hurd, Mahmood and Danchin, eds. (University of Chicago Press, 2015).
  • "Preface" (to book-section on "Freedom"), Politics of Religious Freedom, Sullivan, Hurd, Mahmood and Danchin, eds.  (University of Chicago Press, 2015).
  • "Religious Freedom, Minority Rights and Geopolitics", Politics of Religious Freedom, Sullivan, Hurd, Mahmood and Danchin, eds.  (University of Chicago Press, 2015).
  • "Sexuality and Secularism", Gendering the Divide: Religion, the Secular, and the Politics of Sexual Difference, Linell Cady and Tracy Fessenden, eds. (Columbia University Press, 2014).
  • "Introduction" (with Wendy Brown and Judith Butler), Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech. Fordham University Press (new edition, 2013).
  • "Ethics and Piety", A Companion to Moral Anthropology, Didier Fassin, ed., Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
  • "Can Secularism be Other-wise?", Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, Michael Warner, Jonathan VanAntwerpen, and Craig Calhoun eds., Harvard University Press, 2010.
  • "Feminism, Democracy, and Empire: Islam and the War of Terror", Women Studies on the Edge, Joan W. Scott, ed., Duke University Press, 2009.
  • "Feminism and Human Rights: Interview with Saba Mahmood", The Present as History: Critical Perspectives on Global Power, Nermeen Sheikh, ed., Columbia University Press, 2008.
  • "Agency, Performativity, and the Feminist Subject", Bodily Citations: Religionists Engage with Judith Butler, Ellen Armour, ed., Columbia University Press, 2006.
  • "Anthropology and the Study of Women in Muslim Societies (disciplinary entry on Anthropology)", Encyclopedia of Women in Islamic Cultures, Suad Joseph, ed., Brill Publishers, 2003.


  1. "Obituary: Dr. Saba Mahmood, 1962-2018 | Anthropology". Retrieved 2019-11-22.
  3. "Saba Mahmood". University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved 2016-01-08.
  4. Salam, Maya (28 March 2018). "Saba Mahmood, 57, Dies; Traced Intersection of Feminism and Islam". The New York Times. Retrieved 30 March 2018.
  5. "Obituary: Dr. Saba Mahmood, 1962-2018". Anthropology Department, UC Berkeley. 2018-03-12. Retrieved 2018-03-14.
  6. "Editorial Board | Representations". Retrieved 2017-03-16.
  7. "Editorial_Board | Journal of the American Academy of Religion | Oxford Academic". Retrieved 2017-03-16.
  8. "Faculty of Theology names two new honorary doctors – Uppsala University, Sweden". Retrieved 2016-02-03.
  9. "05.04.2007 – Islamic scholars receive Carnegie grants". Retrieved 2017-03-16.
  10. "Mahmood, S.: Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. (eBook and Paperback)". Retrieved 2017-03-16.
  11. "Mahmood, S.: Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report. (eBook, Paperback and Hardcover)". Retrieved 2017-03-16.
  12. Spanò, Michele (2013). "REVIEW: Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton, 2011)". Foucault Studies.
  13. Surkis, Judith. "Minority matters – The Immanent Frame". Retrieved 2018-03-12.
  21. UC Berkeley Public Affairs (13 March 2018). "Saba Mahmood, scholar of modern Egypt, loses battle with cancer". Berkeley News. Retrieved 30 March 2018.
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